14 May 2018

How to relieve stress this Mental Health Awareness Week

Stress can be so detrimental to your wellbeing that it can lead to feeling alone and in some cases suicidal, one in six people have self-harmed as a direct result of stress. This Mental Health Awareness Week we take a look at relaxation techniques which help to reduce stress and help to improve your mental and physical health. 

When you become stressed your nervous system is overwhelmed and 'fight or flight' mode sets in by chemicals that flood your body. This response can be lifesaving in emergency situations, but when it is constantly activated through your every day life you can become worn down. 

Stress can't always be avoided but you can counteract some of the effects by learning how to relax. Your relaxation response, once activated, will:

  • Slow down your heart rate
  • Slow down your breathing
  • Your blood pressure will drop
  • Muscles relax
  • Blood flow to your brain increases

The following techniques can help you to activate your relaxation response:

Mindfulness meditation

Meditation is just one form of mindfulness, other activities can be applied such as walking, exercising or eating.

  1. Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor.

  2. Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensation of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling.
  3. Once you've narrowed your concentration in this way, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and thoughts.
  4. Embrace and consider each thought or sensation without judging it good or bad. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing. Then expand your awareness again.

Deep breathing

With its focus on full, cleansing breaths, deep breathing is a simple yet powerful relaxation technique. 

  1. Sit comfortably with your back straight. Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.

  2. Breathe in through your nose. The hand on your stomach should rise. The hand on your chest should move very little.
  3. Exhale through your mouth, pushing out as much air as you can while contracting your abdominal muscles. The hand on your stomach should move in as you exhale, but your other hand should move very little.
  4. Continue to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Try to inhale enough so that your lower abdomen rises and falls. Count slowly as you exhale.

Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a two-step process in which you systematically tense and relax different muscle groups in the body. 

Start at your feet and work your way up to your face, trying to only tense those muscles intended.

  1. Loosen clothing, take off your shoes, and get comfortable.
  2. Take a few minutes to breathe in and out in slow, deep breaths.
  3. When you’re ready, shift your attention to your right foot. Take a moment to focus on the way it feels.
  4. Slowly tense the muscles in your right foot, squeezing as tightly as you can. Hold for a count of 10.
  5. Relax your foot. Focus on the tension flowing away and how your foot feels as it becomes limp and loose.
  6. Stay in this relaxed state for a moment, breathing deeply and slowly.
  7. Shift your attention to your left foot. Follow the same sequence of muscle tension and release.
  8. Move slowly up through your body, contracting and relaxing the different muscle groups.
  9. It may take some practice at first, but try not to tense muscles other than those intended.

If these relaxation exercises aren't working for you, then try out relaxation or mindfulness apps. There are a wide range of apps in the market, but these top 5 are tried and tested:

  1. Headspace
  2. Calm
  3. Stop, Breathe and Think
  4. Aura
  5. Smiling Mind

It’s important to remember though that these apps and relaxation techniques are not specifically designed to treat mental health problems, and should not be used as a substitute for seeking professional help should you be suffering from one.